Alvin Kerber

math and computers and stuff

I spend too much of my life setting goals for myself. Especially when I’m in periods of high-stress, it gets to be too much. There’s so many things I’m trying to do, and I don’t have enough time in the day/week to make substantive progress on all of them. This makes me sad.

I think one simple strategy is to bear in mind that there are different kinds of goals. Most are long-term objectives or results. These are often things outside my control, or even if they’re in my control are dependent on many constantly-changing factors. Some examples include:

I loosely think of these as big results – they’re things where it’s clear whether I pulled them off or not, but pulling them off will require a combination of hard work, circumstances, and good fortune. Have too many simultaneous results I’m working toward at once is a big source of stress in my life. A result can become especially stressful if it’s really big/far off and any progress toward it day-to-day is so small that it feels like I’m getting nowhere. For instance, “complete my PhD” was definitely a result like that for me.

I hoped after I finished my degree I wouldn’t have concerns like that, but obviously I have new big goals and the stress is becoming a fact of life. A very standard piece of advice is to divide the goals into smaller manageable subgoals. Obviously this is good. But instead of even setting small goals that are subject to externalities – and which I thterefore often make too difficult, and then derail things right away – I think it’s best to focus on things that can be done with only my own effort. A practice, instead of a subgoal.

For instance, say I want to learn data structures and algorithms in detail. One subgoal is to finish the chapter I’m currently on. This is an important step, but if I sit around and feel like “I have to finish it”, I tempt myself to rush through it as quickly as possible, and if I don’t do it as fast as I’d hoped I feel behind. Instead, a more constructive phrasing is “practice studying and working with data structures and algorithms.” Then the key indicator of my success isn’t results achieved, but time and effort put in.

If there’s one thing I can say about the things I’ve practiced for many years, it’s that years of consistent effort yield results in a way that I’m not good at noticing or feeling in the moment. “Practicing” maybe sounds rote or boring, but for someone like me who spent most of his life practicing something and usually enjoyed the practice times better than the results-oriented work times, it feels like a godsend.

Practicing also has good connotations of having a regular time and place, repetition and setbacks being totally ok, and not being directly accountable for external results. Obviously there are still better and worse practicing habits – a struggle which I went through as a kid – and better habits will give better results, but those can come slowly. The important thing is just to put in the time and effort.

I will try to follow this in my own life. Hopefully it will help me be less stressed out.

I added some regular practices to my goals/studying page to track them.